Going Buggy : Insects' Ant-idote for Heat Is to Flea Inside for Eggs-ceptional Digs

The bugs of summer are upon us--and upon our dogs, our cats, our porches and even, in the worst-hit parts of Ventura County, upon our kitchen and dining-room tables.

The county is entering the heights--or depths--of the insect season, entomologists and veterinarians warn. And, as it does the rest of us, the long drought is affecting the bugs too.

Ants are especially troublesome this year, but there should be fewer flies and a normal invasion of spiders, the experts say.

And while fleas are making themselves felt, there's a difference of opinion as to whether they're having a particularly good or bad year.

The ants began invading homes several weeks earlier than usual because they're searching for water, said Phil Phillips, an entomologist with the University of California Extension in Ventura.

"They're forced to move onto porches and into houses and apartments because people are irrigating their yards much less than in past summers," he said.

Normally, Phillips said, ants aren't a widespread nuisance in the county until mid-August. But this year, because of the dry conditions, the insects' scouts started desperately seeking moisture as early as June and July.

Once the scouts find water--often in a sink, bathtub or shower stall--the rest of the army follows. They drink their fill and then, Phillips said, they start hunting for food.

To keep ants away, he suggested, "make sure your house is sanitary, especially around sinks. And be sure to put away cookies and other foods that contain sugar."

Phillips said there are two types of ants common in Ventura County--the Argentine and the odorous house ant--"and both of them love sweets."

Jim Kam, office manager of Hydrex Pest Control in Camarillo, said calls to his office are up 75% this summer from people wanting their houses sprayed against ants.

The worst ant problems are in Ojai, Thousand Oaks and other inland areas, Kam said, though coastal areas are hard hit too.

Often, Kam said, ants get into a house or apartment by following condensation that forms on outside water pipes.

"It would take three or four inches of rain to put enough water on the ground to keep the ants outside," Kam said. "The soil is so dry right now that most of the water would run off or evaporate."

Hank Solano, service manager for Orkin Pest Control in Chatsworth, which serves Ventura County, said his company is "getting calls from all over" about ants.

While Solano said many ants are invading homes seeking water, he doesn't agree that the drought is entirely to blame. "Ants are unpredictable," he said. "They'll come out whether it's dry or wet."

Experts also disagree about the extent of this year's flea invasion. Kathy Jenks, director of the county Animal Regulation Department, said the problem this summer is among the worst in her memory.

"The fleas seem to have become resistant to all the products that are used against them," she said. "We've seen dogs that have been bitten so badly they're anemic."

Dr. Thomas J. Bulgin, a veterinarian who owns the All Cats Clinic in Ventura, agreed that it's a bad year for fleas but said many of his clients have had success using chemically treated flea collars on their pets.

He also recommended spraying yards with an organic pesticide and, most important, keeping cats indoors. "If they're kept inside, they'll pick up a lot less fleas."

Another Ventura veterinarian, Dr. Thomas J. Turner, said the absence of cool, rainy weather in recent winters has increased the flea population.

"Normally, the eggs don't hatch in the wintertime, so the fleas' life cycle doesn't start until March," he said. "Lately, however, there's been no interruption. Fleas are hatching the year around."

In Thousand Oaks, Dr. Patrick Connolly of the Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic said some of his clients tell him fleas aren't nearly as bad this summer as usual.

"We had a mini-outbreak right after the heat spells in May and June," he said. "But it's been much better since then, probably because the weather has been relatively mild."

At any rate, all the experts agreed, fleas should be most troublesome from now through October.

Some veterinarians and groomers recommend anti-flea shampoos, especially for animals that are allergic to flea saliva.

Ronnie Reynolds, owner of Quality Cat & Dog Grooming in Ventura, reports good results with a shampoo containing pyrethrum, an insecticide made from chrysanthemums. "But it's effective for only several days," she said.

Phillips said that as the days get warmer and pets spend more time indoors, they tend to bring fleas inside with them.

"It's important to control the fleas by keeping the animals' sleeping area and bedding clean," he said. "The bedding should be laundered at least once a week.

"And the area where the animal sleeps should be vacuumed often--even several times a day when fleas start to appear. This helps control the flea in its immature stage, when it feeds on pet hairs and skin particles that it finds in the bedding."

While Kam agreed with those who maintain that this is a lighter-than-usual flea year, he said he's had a steep increase in complaints about spiders, especially daddy longlegs and black widows.

"I think rain is a natural killer of spiders because it drowns them and destroys their webs," he said. "Since there's been so little rain, we haven't had this control over them."

Another boon to spiders has been the proliferation of man-made lakes in housing developments throughout the county, said Dave Bazzle, Ventura County branch manager for Western Exterminator Co.

He said the midge, which resembles a small mosquito, breeds in the lakes. "Midges get caught in spider webs and provide an abundant food source for the spiders," Bazzle said.

All spiders bite, Kam said, but in this area the black widow--recognizable by a red hourglass figure on its underside--is the one whose bite is most likely to be poisonous.

Two advantages of the drought, Phillips said, have been fewer houseflies and no-see-ums.

There are fewer flies this summer because they require moisture in the larval or maggot stage, and no-see-ums--tiny midges whose bites can be very irritating to some people--need lots of running water to mature.

"Since our creeks and other waterways are so low, it and lots of other critters are decreasing in importance," Phillips said.

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